Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Doctor Dog: Frankie gives comfort at Bear Cottage

Frankie at work.

Most readers of this blog will be sold on the companionship that animals bring to us, but not everyone has direct experience with pets as therapy. Today;s post is about Frankie the labrador, and the important role she plays within (and indeed beyond) children's hospice Bear Cottage. Bronwen from Bear Cottage agreed to chat to us about this remarkable dog and the important role she plays in this pretty remarkable place. 

Can you tell us a little bit about Bear Cottage and what it does?
Bear Cottage is the only children’s hospice in NSW, one of only two in Australia, and the only one in the world affiliated with a children’s hospital.  It provides support, respite and end of life care for children with life-limiting illnesses and their families.

The Children’s Hospital at Westmead began planning for Bear Cottage almost 20 years ago, when Dr John Yu and Dr Michael Stevens first thought of the idea to enhance the Hospital’s palliative care program.

The Cottage is located on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, in Manly.  Bear Cottage’s vision was to be as far removed from a hospital environment as possible – staff do not wear uniforms, no medical procedures are carried out in the bedrooms, the children’s rooms are designed to like a normal bedroom, and we even have a family pet, Frankie, our adorable Labrador.  That said, Bear Cottage is set up to provide excellence in paediatric medical care 24 hours a day, and our affiliation to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead means we have access to the best medical resources in the world.

When families are told that their child’s life will be cut short, their everyday existence takes on a monumental change.  As they embark on this terrible journey, there are limited options available to help them get through each day, and answer the many questions that arise. Having Bear Cottage available to them for care and support enables them to focus on the important things such as spending quality time together as a family and making every moment count.

Whilst staying with us, our families can do as much or as little as they like.  We have staff and volunteers on hand to do the cooking and cleaning, allowing families to forget about the stresses of everyday life, and our nurses are available 24 hours a day to administer medications and offer support and guidance.  Our resident dog Frankie, is always around for a cuddle or to lend an ear when a scared parent, sibling or patient wants to confide in someone, and our full-time play therapist and volunteers are there so mum and dad can spend time together or with their other children – often something that is forgotten when you’re caring for such a sick child.

Most families staying at Bear Cottage will come for respite; with the average length of stay is around one week to ten days.  Families are generally able to visit Bear Cottage around 4 times a year for respite, however for end of life care this can be open ended.

Frankie. She should be awarded an honorary doctorate in cuddling.
How did Frankie come to be at Bear Cottage?
Frankie has been at Bear Cottage since April 2011. She graduated from Assistance Dogs Australia in April 2011 and came to work at Bear Cottage. She replaced our much loved black Labrador Scooter who had been at Bear Cottage for over 10 years and had recently retired. She was trained by detainees from the Frank Baxter Juvenile Detention Centre as part of an Assistance Dogs program “Justice Pups”.

Some of the detainees visited Bear Cottage last year to see Frankie in action and found it incredibly moving to see what they had been involved with. These inmates have since gone on to fundraise for Bear Cottage in order to continue their support for the terminally ill children that stay with us.

It took two years for her to be fully trained at a cost of $25,000. She is very valuable, in more ways that one!

What is her role?
Frankie spends a lot of time on interactive play with the siblings. One of the great things she does if a child has no ability to use their limbs anymore, she responds to voice commands and will still play with the child even though they are immobile.  

Frankie accompanies families to the beaches and on walks. For some of our children who are almost totally immobile, she will visit and stay with them to provide company and affection. She can also performs about 20 different tricks (especially if she is rewarded with treats) e.g. turning on the electric train and rolling over, shaking hands and jumping up and gently resting her paws on a child’s wheelchair. Frankie can also “talk” on command – something the kids love because they think she is talking to them.

How do kids and families respond to her?
Frankie is a much loved companion for all the children, siblings and parents that visit us at Bear Cottage. She is always around for a cuddle, a game or for someone to have a quiet word in her ear.

Frankie also has a more serious role – many of our families are here during the most stressful and sad time of their lives. She is able to provide support in the way that only a dog can. She seems to be able to sense when she is needed for a cuddle and somehow knows when a child is nearing death.

Do you think Frankie is aware of the gravity of her role?
Frankie is very intuitive. She seems to somehow know if a child is in particular need or if they are nearing death. She will often sit outside a child’s bedroom or come in and sit on a child’s bed if that is what they want. There are times when you definitely feel that she is aware of what is going on in the house and picks up on people’s feelings.

What are Frankie’s favourite activities?
Frankie very much wants to be part of everything that goes on at Bear Cottage. Whether it’s playing catch with some of the siblings or snuggling up for a cuddle.

Sometimes we actually think that she is smiling. The staff meet every morning to catch up on what is going on in the Cottage – Frankie always when it’s time for it to start and always attends.

How can readers support Bear Cottage?
People can donate by going to our website at Look out for the special “Frankie’s Tour” on the website (or click here).

Is there anything else you want to add?

It has been said that a house is not a home without a pet. Frankie is a huge part of Bear Cottage being the warm and loving home that it is.

Thank you Bronwen for taking the time. I'm speechless, a bit teary, and very much in awe of the incredible work that Frankie and her amazing team do for families. 

The other AWESOME thing I learned about Bear Cottage is that they are running a SUPERHERO fundraiser this year. This is where you get to dress up as a SUPERHERO and raise funds. I am beside myself with excitement. If you have a superhero outfit, you can set up a fundraising page like this one or make your own.